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Trends in Zoo Design - Changing Needs in Keeping Wild Animals for a Visiting Audience
Monika Fiby, Landscape Architecture and Zoo Design, Vienna, Austria
This article was first published in Topos 62 /2008 -
The International Review of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design
Published in ZooLex with permission of Topos and the author in November 2008

People visit zoos for an interesting animal experience in an enjoyable setting. Visitor expectations and behaviour vary from culture to culture and are changing due to education, technical innovations, time pressure and tourism. These and an increasing concern for animal welfare are today’s driving forces in zoo design.


The organization of animal exhibitions usually reflects the interest of the collector. When taxonomy was developed, the arrangements in Europe typically were by taxons such as Monkey House, Cat Mountain, Bear Castle, Aviaries. Later on, zoo geography became a matter of interest and animals were arranged according to their origins in Africa, Asia or Australia, or, even more specifically, by geographic regions like Congo, Etosha or Patagonia. With new findings in ecology, zoos began to arrange their displays by ecologic themes such as Rainforest, Desert, Savanna.

The need to build shelters for exotic animals also created trends in zoo design. It is not unusual that animal shelters look like small residential houses because the local zoo contractors are familiar with this type of building. The more ambitious structures resemble castles or temples. In both cases, wild animals are displayed in human structures, which makes them look tame. The intention of building naturalistic exhibits is to display wild animals as wild. Therefore, animal shelters in naturalistic exhibits are typically camouflaged by landforms, rocks and vegetation. This shift in zoo exhibitry philosophy also has led to more landscape architects getting involved in zoo design rather than architects.

Since animal species are mostly at risk due to human activities, the relationship between humans and wild animals has become an increasingly important topic for education and interpretation. This trend is reflected in culturally themed exhibits such as “Thai Temple”, “Indian Palace” or “African Village”. In naturalistic cultural exhibits only visitors use human structures. In other approaches animals may be displayed as taking over abandoned human structures.

In addition to theme areas for wild animals, most zoos also have displays of domestic animals such as “Meyer’s Farm”, “Farmstead” or “Horse Farm”. “Backyard to Bush” is a more comprehensive theme area at Taronga Zoo about sustainability and wildlife around human settlements. Areas where touching of animals is allowed are often called “Petting Zoo” or “Children’s Zoo”.

Today, an increasing share of zoo visitors with demanding work schedules and a growing choice of leisure attractions want to know what they can do and see in a zoo, and how the visit will fit into their cost and time budget. This need for orientation, along with the increasingly educational role of zoos, can be answered by organizing the zoo site into themes along a path circuit.


The evolution of zoo design can be credited to a few individuals. Carl Hagenbeck, a German merchant of wild animals, founded Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg in the late 19th century, and was the first to display wild animals behind moats instead of fences. Heini Hediger is called the “father of zoo biology”. This zoologist and psychologist was a zoo director in Swiss zoos from 1938 to 1973. His work on animal behaviour and zoo education set trends and standards in zoo design. Jon Coe was among the first to call himself a zoo designer. This landscape architect has specialized in the field since the 1970s and has developed a theory of zoo design. Coe’s theoretical work is widely used in zoo design.

Zoo design is applied in various types of facilities such as zoological and botanical gardens, museums, rescue and breeding centers, theme parks, dolphinariums, aquariums, wild animal parks, game farms, and even in national parks. These facilities’ purposes vary and their design have used to be recognizably different. However, the driving forces for changes in zoo design lead to similar design requirements across institutions. Sophisticated zoo design depends a lot on the education of zoo staff. Trends are set by institutions which can afford experts on all levels.

New themes will always be developed. Today, all the previously mentioned arrangements can be found in zoos around the world, often mixed on one site due to historical developments at the zoo. The decision for a specific arrangement nowadays depends on many factors, among them cost and labour efficiency, animal compatibility, scientific accuracy, authenticity, conservation needs, animal welfare, technology, and the story to be told.


The messages that visitors assimilate during their visit to a zoo – consciously and unconsciously – will influence their impression of the institution’s attitude towards specific animals. Hopefully, the messages will encourage one or the other visitor to take action benefitting wildlife and ecosystems. Obviously, the delivery of zoo messages is important and complex and goes beyond signage and brochures. Putting a single bird into a small cage communicates: “Here is a beautiful object that we treat as we want and will eventually replace.” In contrast, displaying multiple species of animals in realistic recreations of their habitats communicates a message of both wildlife ecology and appreciaton.

Understanding the difference between an enclosure and an exhibit is essential for gaining control of the message that will be delivered by an animal display. An animal enclosure is simply a space that was enclosed for keeping animals inside. An animal exhibit is an animal enclosure on public display. It typically has dedicated public viewing areas and separated service areas. The design of the viewing area should be consistent with the intended message.


The illusion of authenticity that people can see in TV documentaries is another driving force for changes in zoo design, as people expect experiences of similar quality in zoos. The answers in zoo design are multimedia interpretation, naturalistic immersion exhibits and themed visitor environments. When the theming looks real, exhibit elements may be called authentic; still they are fabricated representations of the original authentic environments. A “naturalistic exhibit” emulates a natural animal habitat in a convincing way. For a scientist, a habitat is the environment in which an animal normally lives. Animals normally do not live in exhibits. Nevertheless it has become common practice to call enclosures habitats when they are meant to emulate the conditions of the natural habitat.

In an “immersion exhibit” animals and visitors share the same naturalistic overall environment. Visitors are plunged or immersed into the setting. Recently, exhibits are also called immersive when animals and visitors share a common themed space which is not naturalistic.

“Northern Trail” at Woodland Park Zoo, “Masoala Rainforest” at Zurich Zoo, “Streets Creatures of the Wollemi” at Taronga Zoo and “Javelina Exhibit” at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, are naturalistic immersion exhibits. The “Ancient City” at Amersfoort Zoo immerses visitors in the themed environment of ruins which are used by visitors and animals. The designer called the concept reverse landscape immersion since human structures reach into animal space. It looks as if the animals are taking them over. “Jellies: Living Art” at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is not naturalistic, though visitors are immersed into a themed environment that draws their attention to jellies. See the Gallery for these exhibits.


Animal welfare is a powerful, sometimes irrational, but overall beneficial driving force for changes in zoo design. The evolution of empathy with animals can be considered a cultural achievement of individuals and societies. Educated empathy is very different from simple-hearted charity. It requires the ability to observe, interpret and evaluate animal behaviours and their physical appearance. This evolution of empathy can be read from the design of animal exhibits.

The interest in improving the quality of life of captive animals has lead to the development of environmental and behavioural enrichment, which offers stimulation and enhances animal health. Enrichment provides captive animals with opportunities to express species-specific behavior and allows them to make choices. Ideally, animals can choose their exposure to sunlight, wind and rain. An animal exhibit should have shelters, perches, vegetation and water bodies to provide various microclimates. Depending on the animal’s natural behaviours, the exhibit should also provide a variety of substrates and natural objects. The appropriateness of artificial objects depends on the theme and the intended message of the exhibit. Changing and exchanging objects and exhibit elements allows exploration in a confined space which is a fundamental animal behaviour. Exhibit design should allow such changes.

Standards of keeping wild animals are constantly improving. Findings from clinical and field research are used to enhance the quality of living spaces and husbandry for animals. In more advanced institutions around the world, animals have moved from bathroom–like enclosures into planted gardens where they may browse for natural food. Social animals are allowed company with which they can choose between mingling and retreat. This development recently has led to a debate about conceding human rights to great apes. It will eventually lead to replacing legal ownership of captive animals by a concept of guardianship which imposes the obligation to guarantee such animals best possible care and a maximum of choices.

Guidelines for the husbandry of captive animals have been developed by international zoo organizations and are constantly adjusted. They give recommendations for the quantity and quality of animal enclosures. Higher standards are promoted by experts and lobbyists, communicated by media and – to some degree – finally requested by zoo visitors.


The rapid rate of evolution in animal management and educational focus suggest that exhibits should only be designed for a ten year life because they will be obsolete thereafter. Luckily, advances in animal training and educational methods eventually allow the upgrade of older exhibits. In any case, animal facilities should be designed with the dissembly and recycling of building materials in mind.

Technical innovations are leading to new types of animal exhibits. Huge aquarium displays and underwater tunnels are being built now that acrylic panels can be manufactured in almost any form and dimension. Nearly invisible barriers can be created with special nettings, tension steel wire and the use of electric fences. Computer modelling allows for the design of huge free form nettings for naturalistic animal exhibits.

“Green technologies” are also influencing zoo design. In European zoos, technologies for green roofs and insulation are widespread, while water recycling and CO2-neutral heating and cooling are still experimental. In other parts of the world, green technologies are in their infancy or still unknown.

Future Zoos

The evolution of zoo design is taking place around the world, but at different paces from institution to institution. Very advanced animal management and display techniques can be found in institutions practically next door to others with inappropriate enclosures. The pace of advances mainly depends on legislation and access to information. The European Union, for instance, enforces minimum standards for the keeping of wild animals (Council Directive 1999/22/EC of 29 March 1999 relating to the keeping of wild animals in zoos).

The availability of wild animals is another driving force that will shape future zoos. Only a few thousand of many typical zoo species – such as tigers, elephants, giraffes, gorillas, rhinos – are left in the wild and the number of species at the brink of extinction is rapidly increasing. International regulations such as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) make the importation of endangered wild species increasingly difficult. Zoos therefore have started to breed endangered species in an internationally organized effort. However, zoo animal populations of most species are currently too small to be sustainable. Efforts to establish and secure larger breeding groups are necessary – in their original habitats (in situ) and in other places (ex situ). Since zoo animals cannot be easily released into the wild, they rather serve as representatives for their species. They have the potential to support education of the public and campaigns for funding conservation projects for their wild counterparts.

It is most likely that institutions that keep wild animals will specialize in breeding fewer species, but diversify in focus and mission. In the future, more zoos will become involved in conservation programs. They will tell their stories by using various methods and media, only one of them being the display of live animals. In essence, then, zoos will become gateways to the natural world.

The path layout of Melbourne Zoo in 1875 ressembled traditional parks.
© Zoos Victoria, Australia, 2008

Over time, the path system of Melbourne Zoo was changed into loops from the main axis, taking visitors into themed areas.
© Zoos Victoria, Australia, 2008

Unterwater tunnel at the Sydney Aquarium
© Monika Fiby, 2007

Tiger exhibit at Zoo Schoenbrunn
© Monika Fiby, 2004

Artistic exhibits are mixed with animal exhibits, interactive exhibits and signage to present and educate about jellies.
© Monika Fiby, 2004

Monterey Bay Aquarium
© Monika Fiby, 2004

Revised 2017-05-17
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